The Effect of Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis on Literary Criticism

March 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

Sigmund Freud, as a nineteenth century neurologist, intricately studied the workings of the human mind, leading him to develop a controversial theory termed psychoanalysis. He differentiated between that which we knowingly do and think, and what that which we unconsciously repress, constructing a model of the separate divisions of the human psyche and its processes. In this essay I shall both explain Freud’s theory, as well as outline its implications for literary criticism as the unconscious thoughts of both the characters and the writer come into play.

According to Freud’s process of psychoanalysis, the mind exists not as one single unit, but is rather separated into three distinct divisions: the conscious mind, the preconscious mind, and the unconscious mind. Freud uses an iceberg analogy in order to better explain his ideas about the levels of the mind. Here, the conscious mind is shown as comparable to the tip of an iceberg, the only part which is clearly exposed above sea level. This level encompasses the thoughts and feelings which we are aware of and our rational everyday thought processes. The preconscious exists just below ‘sea level’, and can be accessed when necessary but is not constantly in awareness, much like human memories. These are stored just outside of our consciousness, but we can retrieve them in response to a trigger such as an old photo or a friend recalling a memory out loud. The largest part of the iceberg which expands deep under the water hidden from view is analogous to Freud’s idea of the unconscious. This is a vast thought pool of mostly socially unacceptable desires, fears and anxieties. One of his key ideas on this part of the mind is the idea that it operates outside of our awareness, yet still affects our behaviour and personality without us knowing it. The majority of this level is composed of what Freud termed the ‘id’, the basal instincts and desires of the human mind. The id is comprised of the life instinct (or eros), which drives sexual desire and life sustenance, and the death instinct (or theros) which is responsible for aggression and self-destruction. Freud argued that the ‘ego’ is developed during infancy as a way of integrating the primitive desires of the id into the reality of society in a safe and acceptable way. The ‘superego’ is, according to Freud, the part of the brain which acts in accordance with moral expectations. Unlike the ego, the superego causes us to feel guilt when we allow ourselves to act on our primal desires in an uncompromising fashion. Freud outlined the way in which this guilt or conscience keeps our unconscious desires from manifesting in a socially unacceptable manner as he argued that “Conscience is the internal perception of the rejection of a particular wish operating within us”[1].

When applied to literary criticism, Freud’s theory holds implications for the nature of characters and their unconscious motives, leading the characters to take on a new position in relation in the story, perhaps even transitioning from a protagonist to an antagonist or vice versa. An example of this can be seen in Henry James’s gothic novel, The Turn of the Screw[2]. Throughout James’s novel, we are presented with the story of a woman who, when taken in a literal form, is confronted by ghostly apparitions which haunt the house she becomes employed at. However, when read in the light of Freudian theory, these ghosts be more psychological than supernatural. Leonard Orr supports this alternative standpoint and affirms its alignment with Freud’s theory as he argues that “to see the ghosts as hysterical projections from the disturbed mind of the narrator…so the children are victims; [is to place] the focus on the unconscious mind of the governess and the tools of psychoanalysis”[3]. Indeed, from a Freudian perspective, the close and intimate relationship which the governess develops with Flora and Miles may be seen as more perverse than maternal. Gary Gillard supports this notion as he suggests that the governess’s repressed sexual wishes “take the form of projections of perverted desire, directed at the children, but not manifestly emanating from the governess herself, but only revealed latently so to be, after a process of psychoanalysis”[4]. Certainly, much of the governess’s interaction with the children can be interpreted as holding sexual undertones, such as when she describes how she “held [Miles] to [her] breast, where [she] could feel in the sudden fever of his little body the tremendous pulse of his little heart”[5]. If this view is to be accepted, the ghosts may not be simply projections of her desire, but rather a product of her superego which experiences guilt. If she realises her actions are wrong, the apparitions may be a form of wish fulfilment, allowing her to alleviate her guilt by seeing herself as a protector of the children rather than an antagonist. Here, the governess has undergone a fundamental transition from hero and anti-hero when the text is approached from a Freudian perspective.

Another key aspect of Freud’s theory which holds implications for literature is the Oedipus complex. Having drawn its name from the famous Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex about the man who unintentionally murders his father and marries his mother[6], the theory dictates that all children must develop through an unconscious attraction to their female parent. In the case of boys, this leads to an equally unconscious desire to rid themselves of their father who they deem the main competition for the mother’s affection. Indeed, Freud himself stated that “The sexual wishes in regard to the mother become more intense and the father is perceived as an obstacle; this gives rise to the Oedipus complex”[7]. Together with this comes what Freud termed ‘castration anxiety’. During this, boys fear that their father will take away their penis which categorizes them as male, as a consequence of this perceived rivalry over the love of the mother. To avoid this, boys resolve their fears by imitating the father’s masculine traits and behaviours in the hope of one day attaining a sexual relationship with a similarly maternal woman. Girls, Freud argues, are subject to the phenomenon of penis envy, in which they come to blame their mother for their lack of male genitals, and subsequently shift their unconscious sexual desire from their mother to their father. Instead of an Oedipus complex, girls develop a similar complex, later labelled the Electra complex by Carl Jung, in which they experience rivalry with their mother over the attention of the father. Unlike the male, the female need for domination of a parent manifests as anger as oppose to anxiety. This anger leads the female child to fear the loss of her mother’s love as she begins to emulate her mother in the same way that the male child emulates his father. In relation to literary criticism, Freud’s theories of the Electra and Oedipus complexes can hold significant implications when applied to literary texts which feature a central parent-child relationship. What may appear as simple conflict over trivial matters may actually be a sign of an unconscious and unresolved Oedipus or Electra complex. A key example of this can be seen in Sylvia Plath’s poem Medusa[8]. From a Freudian perspective, the unnamed person to whom the speaker directs the poem can be interpreted as being the speaker’s mother. The poem’s tone seems caught between resentment of the mother and longing for the mother. She is clearly bitter towards her as she asserts that there “is nothing between [them]” and perhaps, as Freud might suggest, this is a result of lasting anger towards her mother over her unresolved penis envy and tension over desire for the father. This is further suggested as the speaker tells how her supposed mother is still “paralyzing the kicking lovers”, implying that in her eyes not only did her mother rob her of her father’s love, but is also destroying her relationship with her lover who serves as a replacement for her father. In light of Freud’s theory of the Electra complex, the meaning of the poem becomes one of maternal rivalry and an unresolved desire for possession of the father.

In addition to a Freudian psychoanalysis of literary fictional characters, his theory can also be applied to writers themselves. According to Freud, literary texts are akin to dreams in the way that they exist as manifestations of the subconscious desires and anxieties of the dreamer or writer. Indeed, he suggested that literary texts should receive similar treatment to dreams in regards to the process of interpreting and understanding their content. This is outlined in detail in Freud’s text The Interpretation of Dreams[9] in which he proposes that dreams are a form of wish fulfilment of the mind’s repressed unconscious desires which seep through into awareness during sleep. According to Freud’s work, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”[10]. He argued that a dream is a combination of recent events which have occurred in reality, together with the repressed content of the unconscious mind, which undergo the process of condensation to form one image or dream. From a Freudian perspective, literature and other works of art are similar in nature to dreams. This theory holds several implications for writers, as Freudian critics can attempt to analyse their own unconscious thoughts through the psychoanalysis of their work. Hank de Berg highlights this as he states that “a psychoanalytic interpretation of literary texts and of the reactions to these texts can tell us a good deal about people’s unconscious wishes, about how they have or have not been able to fulfil these wishes, about their upbringing, and about their interaction with their social environment”[11]. However, it is important to note that from a Freudian perspective, the projection of the author’s psyche onto their literary text is completely unintentional. In other words, the writer is unaware not only that their subconscious desires and anxieties are being allowed to manifest in this way, but that they even exist at all. This again is much like the Freudian view of a dream, which contains both manifest and latent content. The latent content is the manifestation of the unconscious within the dream, while the manifest content is all that is remembered on waking.

In conclusion, Freud’s theory as a school of literary criticism serves to uncover hidden meanings in narratives to delve into the unconscious of both the characters and the writer. Works of literature may appear on the surface to be products of rational thought and creativity. However, when studied from a Freudian viewpoint, they are seen as products of the subconscious desires and anxieties of the writer. What may appear to be a harmless event or description may actually be a window into the deeper and darker subconscious mind of the author. Similarly, Freudian criticism encourages us to engage in a similar analysis of the characters, stripping away appearances to find the unconscious roots of their actions and natures. These characters are often driven not only by their own unconscious, but by the manifest unconscious of their creator.


De Berg, Hank. Freud’s Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction. New York: Camden House, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the ID. New York: Stellar Editions, [1923] 2014. Kindle edition.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. London: Dead Dodo Vintage, [1899] 2013. Kindle edition.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. London: Some Good Press, [1913] 2015. Kindle edition.

Gillard, Garry. “The Turn of the Screw and Psychoanalysis”. In Empowering Readers: Ten Approaches to Narrative, by Garry Gillard, 78-88. Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2003.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Tustin: Xist Classics, [1898] 2015. Kindle edition.

Orr, Leonard. “Reading The Turn of the Screw”. In James’s The Turn of the Screw, by Leonard Orr, 29-64. New York: A&C Black, 2009.

Plath, Sylvia. “Medusa”. In Ariel, by Sylvia Plath. London: Faber & Faber Poetry, [1941] 2010. Kindle edition.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Mineola: Dover Publications, [429 BC] 2012. Kindle edition.

[1] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics (London: Some Good Press, [1913] 2015), Kindle edition. [2] Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (Tustin: Xist Classics, [1898] 2015), Kindle edition. [3] Leonard Orr, “Reading The Turn of the Screw”, in James’s The Turn of the Screw, by Leonard Orr (New York: A&C Black, 2009), 39. [4] Garry Gillard, “The Turn of the Screw and Psychoanalysis”, in Empowering Readers: Ten Approaches to Narrative, by Garry Gillard (Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2003), 82. [5] James, The Turn of the Screw. [6] Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (Mineola: Dover Publications, [429 BC] 2012), Kindle edition. [7] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the ID (New York: Stellar Editions, [1923] 2014), Kindle edition. [8] Sylvia Plath, “Medusa”, in Ariel, by Sylvia Plath (London: Faber & Faber Poetry, [1941] 2010), Kindle edition. [9] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (London: Dead Dodo Vintage, [1899] 2013), Kindle edition. [10] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams. [11] Hank De Berg, Freud’s Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction (New York: Camden House, 2004), 11.

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